In ancient world, death was a sport

Congratulations, Boston! The Red Sox won the World Series on Oct. 30, and it reminded us of our investment in sports. The crowd celebrated their Boston pride relatively calmly. Only one car was flipped over.

Compared to ancient times though, the sacrifice of one car in the name of sports was nothing. The games played in our early days involved blood, brute, and beheadings. The games were extremely violent and the losers (sometimes even the winners) were punished with death….so our love of sports has deep roots. Greeks cared so much about it that they even doped themselves to gain an advantage.

Despite their brutality, ancient sports were strikingly similar to modern games. The similarity of your favorite modern game to one of these ancient blood baths might shock you.

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Check out this interactive to see how ancient sports were played.

Most similar to battleship: Naumachia

 A game of battleship can get intense—but not nearly as intense as how the Romans played it.

The game was played on a lake or in an amphitheater filled with water. Thousands of men and a few ships were placed inside and the goal was simple: sink that battleship. The origins of the game started with Julius Ceaser, who wanted to recreate and celebrate his battle with Egypt. The game was used to commemorate famous naval battles until 550 AD.

Staying true to life, the game was bloody. Bloated corpses began to fill the water as the battle ensued. Competitors even used flamethrowers fueled by napalm known as Greek Fire. Men were burned alive. The more death, the more blood. With nowhere for the blood to go, the water would be stained red.

 Most similar to quidditch: Mesoamerican Ballgame

Flying around on broomsticks with witches and wizards seems fun and all, but Mesoamericans brought this intensity to life. The game began 3500 years ago and was the first team sport in known history.

It was a game of strategy and of strength. But mostly a game played for sacrifice. Behind the arenas, archaeologists find racks of skulls. Archaeologists are unclear of what the motivation of the game was, but they do know that the end result was beheading. Sometimes the losers were beheaded, and sometimes the winners were.

It was a complicated game, with set rules. Competitors were clad with protective gear and fought to gain control of the nine-pound rubber ball.  The ball had to constantly be in play. If the ball hit the ground twice, you lost.

And the only way to keep the ball in play was to propel it through the air using their bodies: hit shots, head shots, leg shots. But Harry Potter would be the most proud of the ingenious way you could win the game: by shooting the ball through a tiny hoop placed on one side of the court. Try doing that without magical powers.

Most similar to tug-of-war: Skin Pulling

This is the game that makes tug-of-war seem like a game for toddlers. Using the same concept, the Vikings played this game like warriors.

Instead of pulling on ropes, the Vikings pulled on animal hides. Not too bad, right? Except it was also played inside a ring of fire and took place in a town that they had recently ransacked. The winners of the game won rape-rights to the town’s women.

While tug-of-war challenges your strength, skin pulling challenged your manliness.

Most similar to Lord of the Rings battles: Venatio

Okay, so Lord of the Rings battles aren’t exactly a sport or a game. But they are just as entertaining as this Roman game translating to “the Hunt”.

Nearly impossible to win, this game was forced upon Roman slaves. They had about a two percent chance of surviving. The reason: they had to fight something known as “the beast of carthage”. What is this beast? Twenty elephants ready to trample and skewer them.

This game was not intended to win. It was intended to entertain. And the Romans enjoyed watching and playing it so much that they eventually drove the northern African elephant to extinction because of it.

Most similar to MMA: Pankration

Greeks knew the sport of mixed-martial arts long before us. Pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling performed to the extremist degree. The only thing outlawed was biting and eye-gouging.

Besides that, there were no rules. The goal was to get as close to killing your opponent as possible. But even dying wasn’t a loss; it was considered a sign of masculinity and honor to refuse to give in.

Oh, and it was played completely in the nude.

Most similar to fencing: Fisherman’s Joust

This one sounds pretty self-explanitory. A group of eight fishermen would paddle into the middle of the Nile River and fight to the death—using only their paddles as weapons.

There was an added danger though: the bloodier they got, the more excited the alligators became. And even if they escaped the jaws of the alligators, they would probably regret it. Alligators were a sacred animal in ancient Egypt, and disrespecting their hunger could very well be considered a sin punishable by death.

And did I mention the hungry, hungry hippos ready to eat them too?

A simple game, but one that has not been forgotten. Re-enactments of the joust are still done around the globe.

It seems that not much has changed…except for the fact that our sports now don’t involve fire, flame-throwers, beheadings, or even getting eaten. 

Doesn’t this make over-zealous car flipping seem rather insignificant?